Stalking Family Legends (Gazette-Virginian, April 4)

This feature is on the front page of the current issue of the newspaper, published in South Boston, Virginia.  But the website archives only news stories so I can’t give a link. 


Stalking family legends, former Halifax County Regional Library Director Paul Johnson literally throws open an old attic trunk packed with shocking secrets.

Johnson’s book, “Pell Mellers: Race and Memory in a Carolina Pocosin,” taps science and family lore in pursuit of truth.

His quest: “The first half is about Indian heritage,” began Johnson.  “And the second half is an attempt to understand the Union affiliation of my family and their neighbors during the Civil War.”

“I started pursuing family stories and legends in 1977,” explained Johnson.  His first clue came during a postgraduate genealogy class.

Students were to find the oldest living relatives on the maternal and paternal side of the family, which unleashed old memories.

“There was a trunk in the attic and the children were forbidden to go up and open the trunk,” recalled Johnson.  “So, the trunk was opened,” he added with a smile.  Inside, the children found a blue uniform.

Johnson also discovered his relative “received a pension check from Washington, D.C., and when he died the government sent a tombstone.”

A Yankee connection?

“No, a Union connection,” corrected a smiling Johnson.

During his research the librarian also discovered that 81 percent of Bertie County, N.C. voted against seceding from the Union.

“It was a revelation to me because the family was hush-hush, nobody talked about this.  I stumbled onto it,” he said of the Civil War discoveries.

Pursuing Indian ancestry stories would ultimately lead to DNA tests.

“I was faced with a lot of local stories about Indian heritage in the Pell Mell pocosin (a pocosin is a wetland, higher than a swamp but with a lot of standing water.)  “Basically a bog,” added Johnson.

However, Johnson could find no historical information on Indian ancestry, but he did find different lines from colonial records of free mulattos, according to the 1790 census.*

“Trying to make sense of Indians versus mulattoes, I went to DNA testing,” explained Johnson.

The mystery’s answer is in the book, a result which may intrigue others who have pursued DNA testing.

Johnson spent about three years writing the 198-page book following four years of research. 

The book, published by Backintyme, Palm Coast, Fla., came off the press the same week Johnson retired as the regional library director.

“Pell Mellers: Race and Memory in a Carolina Pocosin,” is available locally at the South Boston/Halifax County Museum for $15.

*correction– “free mulattoes” in colonial records who became “white” in the 1790 census 

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